British universities have got a lot going for them when it comes to an international reputation.  Research, world-class facilities and some of the most respected names this side of the Atlantic – some of them even outmatching our American counterparts.  Names like Oxford and Cambridge pave the way for some extraordinary opportunities for students from all over the world.

Even if you’re not an ‘elite’ student, you can still find yourself in a great university, either as an exchange student or as an undergraduate/master/doctorate.  There are so many options here for international experience that it means you’re always going to find something you like.  Not only that, but it will be something that employers back home in respective countries are going to love, right?

Well it seems that the reality is getting somewhat greyer for international students.  No longer are they continuing to come to our shores to study.  It now seems as though government policies on immigration and fees are turning students away.

The Economist reported the other day that the number of international students has, for the first time in nearly 30 years, declined.  In the 2012-2013 academic year, 307,200 students from abroad started their studies in the UK, compared with 312,000 in the previous year.

The number of EU students has also declined too, put off by the UK’s maximum fee of £9,000 per year to study (for UK or EU students, the rate for those outside of the EU is even higher.)  Furthermore, the tough visa requirements that have come into force mean that students are finding themselves having to really push themselves in unreasonable ways in order to stay in the UK.

The main thing to consider is the fact that international students can be charged an extortionate amount of money to study in the UK – the government and universities seem complicit in turning international students into cash cows.  One year’s study for a non-EU student on a medical degree at a top university could set them back £30,000 a year.  Imagine graduating after seven years of intense medical study (the length generally needed to qualify with the General Medical Council) to find you owe at least £210,000 in tuition fees alone?  Add in other loans you’ve taken out and you’re left with a debt worth nearly a quarter of a million pounds.  Frightening.

Of course, the conservative among us would argue that’s fair enough – British students get the lion’s share of the places so it’s only natural to try and deter all but the best of the foreign students from coming to the UK.  After all, such students are going to make the biggest impact on our society, right?

I don’t really support that particular view on the basis that I can see the benefit of different countries and culture contributing to our society.  Not just from a cultural aspect, but also thanks to different takes on research and development, not to mention student integration.

Using international students to bring in extra income isn’t really fair – OK so there are extra costs associated with bringing students over here but ultimately that shouldn’t justify costs that are so much more expensive that it’s beginning to price students out of places.  It does seem as though universities are trying to re-compensate for lost money thanks to unattractive packages for EU students.

The other cited reason for this decline are the new visa restrictions placed on international students – I’ll refrain from too many political statements but I’m sure you’ll all get the right idea.

Previously, a non-EU student could work for up to two years after they’d graduated in order to earn a living.  Now though, if you haven’t found something that pays £20,600 a year within four months, you’re off back home.

Consider this: around 10% of UK students are left unemployed after six months of graduating, a figure that varies per subject – you get the idea though.  Even those who do find themselves in a full-time job (around 35% of the graduates from each year) will find themselves earning probably less than £20,600 a year.  Many unfortunately find themselves working as bar staff or similar – not their first idea of working life after university but it’s better than nothing.

You’re asking an international student to find a job in a difficult economic environment where English is probably not your first language… all within four months and earning over £20k right from the start?  It’s basically a notice to leave, isn’t it?

If a foreign student wants to genuinely start a new life here in England then they’re going to find it near impossible.  And of course, they can’t just immediately go onto another course afterwards at a higher level unless they’ve got serious money behind them, because the fees are so extraordinary.  This, I suspect, is not a luxury many non-EU students have.

I can see why the government wants to tighten up visa restrictions – the curb on illegal immigration and people overstaying their visa limits can potentially cause problems.  However, it’s going to come at a heavy price for universities as more and more international students feel they aren’t going to be able to commit to a degree here in the UK.

If you’re European, then being in the EU does help you with Erasmus and other exchange programs.  However, those numbers have been declining as well.

Soon, I fear, we’re going to find ourselves rather isolated and without a healthy influx of international students to help support our research, whilst supporting their lives in their own way.  It’s going to be a sorry state of affairs and I worry it’s going to create a bigger deficit in our finances, meaning more budget cuts for universities.

Exchange programs are a potential solution, yes.  However, they tend to be a lot shorter and don’t carry the same weighting as a full degree.  Even I as an exchange student here in France can see that.

Ultimately, this could be damaging times for everyone as we become less diverse.  International students are going to dwindle further, I fear.



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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.